Wireless technology has freed us from the tyranny of cables, allowing us to use our laptops, netbooks, smart phones and tablets pretty much anywhere we want, while remaining connected to the Internet. Over the last few years Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless technology has started appearing in printers too.
Wi-Fi enabled printers have a number of advantages, as once you connect your printer into your home network you can share it with the various devices in your home. It lets you print a business document from your bedroom, print a photo from your smart phone in the lounge, or print a birthday card made by your kids via the tablet in the kitchen.
Some printers also feature Bluetooth technology (including the HP Officejet 100 Mobile, pictured right). Bluetooth support lets you wirelessly print off snaps that you've taken on your mobile phone without first having to transfer them to your PC.
As Wi-Fi is finding its way into more and more phones, Bluetooth printing has become less popular. Nevertheless, Bluetooth support is still a useful feature if you've got one of the many phones that don't have Wi-Fi.
Recently, we've also seen the advent of cloud printing services. These services allow you to send documents and photos to your printer from anywhere in the world. So you can send a photo of New York you've just taken on your mobile to your printer back home, for example. And if your printer is 'cloud ready', it doesn't need to be connected to a PC for cloud printing to work. As long as it's turned on and connected to your Wi-Fi network, it'll start printing once it's received the data via the Internet. Kodak's Hero 7.1 (pictured right) is just one example of a cloud-ready printer.
Wireless printing can sound a bit technical, but it's usually quite easy to setup and use. Let's take a closer look at some of the ways you can take advantage of a printer's wireless features.
Wireless printing is hugely convenient, because it makes it easy to share your printer with your computing kit. All the main printer manufacturers now include models in their ranges that have Wi-Fi onboard. Typically you'll find wireless built-in to models that cost from £40 and upwards, so you don't necessarily have to spend big to get this functionality. Wireless printing is supported on HP's Deskjet 3000 (pictured, below right), which is priced at just £45, for example.
Naturally, to set up wireless printing, you'll need to have a wireless network in your home. However, most people with a broadband connection will already have a wireless router, as broadband suppliers usually include them as part of their start-up packs.
There are three main ways to connect your printer into your Wi-Fi network: using Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), using the printer's onboard Wireless Setup Wizard, or by connecting your printer to your computer via USB and using the supplied software to configure the wireless connection.
The easiest option is to use WPS if your router and printer both support it. With WPS you don't have to know your network's name (or SSID as it's officially known) or password. Instead you simply select the WPS option on your printer via its control panel and then press the WPS button on your wireless router. The two devices will then automatically communicate with each other to establish the connection. Once the connection is set up, you just install the driver software from your printer's installation CD-ROM on all the PCs in the network that will be used for printing.
The second way to configure your printer is to use its wireless setup wizard. To use this you'll need to know your Wi-Fi network's name, as well as its password. The wizard will first perform a scan to find nearby networks. Then you select the name of your network from the list and enter its password. Once the password is entered correctly your printer should be available on your network. You'll still have to install the driver software for your printer, however, on all the computers that are going to be used for printing. After that job is complete, you can start printing from anywhere in your home.
The final option is to configure your printer by first connecting it to your computer via USB. Some people may find this option easier than the second method, as it can often be a bit fiddly to enter long Wi-Fi passwords using your printer's basic controls.
Before you actually connect your printer to your computer's USB port, make sure you've loaded the printer's installation software from the CD-ROM that it came with. It will guide you through the setup process and ask you whether you want to use a USB or Wi-Fi connection. Simply choose the Wi-Fi option, select your network name and enter its password. The software will send this data to the printer's memory and then install the drivers on your PC. Don't forget that you'll also have to install the printer drivers on all the PCs in your network that you want to be able to use for printing.
AirPrint is a relatively new technology from Apple that has been integrated into all of the iOS devices that use version 4.2 or later of the operating system, including the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. It allows any of these products to print directly via Wi-Fi to any AirPrint-compatible printer without having to install any drivers or other software.
When you're viewing a webpage, document or picture on your iOS device's screen, using just a few taps of the screen you can send what you're viewing wirelessly to your printer and be holding a hard copy in your hands within a matter of seconds.
With AirPrint you can print from Safari, Mail, Photos, iWork and PDFs in iBook, and there are a number of third party iOS apps that support printing, too. If you choose to print a photo, AirPrint will even automatically select your printer's photo tray, if it has one.
AirPrint is supported on an increasing number of printers. These include HP's entire ePrint range, selected Brother models, and all of Epson's Wi-Fi compatible models.
AirPrint doesn’t really require any setup, because as long as your printer and iOS device are connected to the same network they will automatically find each other. All you have to do is select the Print option in iOS, tap the 'Select Printer' button and then choose your printer from the list. Next you simply select the number of copies you want and press print. That's it -- it really couldn't be easier.
Bluetooth is a wireless technology that is primarily designed for use in mobile devices, such as mobile phones. Unlike Wi-Fi, Bluetooth is designed to be used over short distances -- typically just a few metres. The benefit of Bluetooth is that it draws very little power, so it's kind to your phone's battery. It does, however, have some drawbacks, not least that Bluetooth connections are typically much slower than Wi-Fi connections.
Bluetooth is usually used for transferring files between mobile devices as well as streaming audio from mobile phones to wireless headsets and headphones. For a while Bluetooth was also a popular technology for wireless printing, especially for printing photos from mobile phones.
As most smart phones now come with Wi-Fi onboard, Bluetooth's popularity is waning, and as a result it's now only found on a small number of printers, and often then only as an add-on.
Bluetooth printing is supported on Canon's current Selphy range of portable printers (pictured right), for example, and some of its Pixma models, such as the MX320, but only via an optional plug-in card. Bluetooth support is also built-in to a limited number of HP models.
Not all phones that have Bluetooth onboard support Bluetooth printing, so it's worth checking your phone's manual before investing in a Bluetooth-enabled printer. Nevertheless, Bluetooth printing is a handy feature if your phone doesn’t support Wi-Fi, as it lets you print snaps from your phone without having to hook up any cables, or first transfer your snaps to a PC.
Before you can print via Bluetooth you first have to setup an initial connection between your phone and printer using a process known as pairing. Usually this involves putting your printer into 'Discovery Mode' via its Bluetooth menu, and then starting a search for other Bluetooth devices on your phone. Once your phone finds the printer, you then have to enter a four-digit passcode to establish the connection.
After the pairing process is completed, your phone and printer will remember this passcode so you won't need to enter it again. When you want to print from your phone, you'll simply need to be within Bluetooth range of your printer, call up the photo you want to print and then choose the Bluetooth option. This is usually available in your phone's photo gallery, where you select 'Send To', or something similar. Then you select Bluetooth as the transfer method and choose your printer as the target device.
Smart phone and tablet printing apps
The growing popularity of smart phones and tablets has meant that more and more of us want to be able to print directly from our mobile devices, rather than having to sync photos and files with a PC when we want to produce hard copies. Thankfully, printer manufacturers have cottoned on to this and now all the major brands have produced their own free smart phone and tablet printing apps.
Alternatively, you can choose to share photos wirelessly with various Kodak digital photo frames, such as the Kodak Easyshare W820 and W1020 frames.
HP ePrint Home&Biz
HP's ePrint Home&Biz doesn't just let you print photos from your smart phone or tablet, it also supports a range of different files types including Word, Excel, PowerPoint and PDF documents.
You can even crop and touch up your pictures, and there is a wide range of HP printer models supported.
As its name suggests, Brother's iPrint&Scan adds scanning into the mix, allowing you to set up scans from your phone and have the results wirelessly transferred from your printer to your handset.
The app also lets you print photos you've taken with your handset's camera, or downloaded using your phone's Web browser.
Canon Easy Photoprint
Like Brother's app, this offering from Canon allows you to both scan and print wirelessly from your smart phone or tablet. It will automatically find compatible printers on your network and lets you scan either to a JPG picture file or a PDF document.
You can also select multiple photos to print at a time and print up to 20 copies of each picture.
Epson's iPrint supports printing of a range of different file formats from your phone or tablet, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint and PDF files. Naturally, it also lets you print photos and scan documents.
Scans can be stored locally on your phone, sent as email attachments or uploaded to a range of online storage services, including Dropbox, Google Docs and Box.net.
Cloud printing is a relatively new concept. Essentially, it allows you to connect your printer to the Internet and then access it from anywhere in the world via the Web.
You could be sitting in an Internet café in Sydney, for example, and send some photos to your printer at home, so your family can see what you've been up to on your travels. Or you could be at your office a few miles from your house and print out your boarding pass for a flight you have to catch later, so it's ready for you to pick up when you get home.
There are two approaches to cloud printing. The first is commonly called email printing. With this method your printer is assigned an email address and any file that you email to this specific address will be printed by your Internet-connected printer.
The advantage of this is that you can print from any mobile device that has email support, without having to install any extra driver software or apps. There are email printing services available from companies such as Kodak, HP and Xerox.
Google, however, has now launched its own Cloud Printing service that allows you to send jobs to your printer across the Web from its Cloud Print-enabled apps. These include its Gmail and Google Docs services as well as its Chrome Web browser. Kodak and HP are currently the only two companies that offer Google Cloud-ready printers. These printers can be connected directly to the Google Cloud service via Wi-Fi, so they don't need your PC to be turned on for cloud printing to work.
You can enable Google Cloud Printing on other printers by downloading the Google Chrome browser. Your printer will need to communicate to the cloud service via your PC, however, so your computer always needs to be on for the service to work with these non-cloud ready printers.